One of the many blessings of my job facilitating classes for parents and their infants and toddlers is that these groups provide me with a personal learning lab. I often learn more than I teach.
A realization I had lately is that there’s often an element missing in our exchanges with children, particularly when they express their thoughts or feelings. What’s missing is silence. Not a brooding, deafening, or angry silence, but rather the open, receptive kind that gives children the time and space they need to fully express themselves. It is these moments that grant them permission to own and then process their feelings.
As I note in my post, The Key to Your Child’s Heart, acknowledging our children’s feelings and desires is one of the most powerful ways to validate and bond with them. Yet all too often, we find it difficult to provide our kids with the crucial next step — the quiet moment they need for our acknowledgments to sink in, to really feel we accept their point of view. To build healthy emotional resilience, children need this pause, an unspoken assurance that we are comfortable with their feelings so they can be, too.
Getting comfortable with the silence is the hard part. Many of us feel the overwhelming compulsion to say or do something — anything to fill the gap. Just letting these moments be can feel as unsettling as passively watching a bathtub overflow.
I was reminded of my own discomfort with silence after a recent telephone conversation with my college freshman. She is animated in person but admittedly dislikes talking on the phone. For several months after she shipped off to college, I’d felt myself trying to fill every bit of empty space with banter. Recently, however, I realized that when I was able to allow for some silence, she would eventually initiate dialogue herself.
Reflecting on this experience, I pondered the reason for my discomfort in those moments, and the answer made me teary: She’ll think I’m boring. She won’t want to talk with me on the phone anymore.
Allowing patient silence can be even more challenging with our younger children, especially when they have expressed an uncomfortable thought or feeling. For example, they are disappointed or distressed when we’ve acknowledged, “You really want me to play with you. You don’t like it that I said no.” It can be intensely unsettling to allow these feelings to hang in the air and play out rather than follow our impulses to:
Actively soothe and comfort
This might mean coaxing hugs or cuddles, acknowledging and empathizing in a poor baby tone, or otherwise snuffing out our children’s feelings with love. But true, lasting comfort is provided when we are calmly accepting and available, not pushing physical connection.
Distract and fix
We might do this by changing the subject (“Look at that wonderful new toy you haven’t even played with yet”), offering treats or rewards, bargaining, negotiating, or pleading: “If you can just give me ten minutes, I’ll be right back with you.”
Analyze and advise
This is similar to “distract and fix” but for children older than toddlers. For example, your child shares her hurt feelings about a friend being unkind to her, but before she’s even finished with her story you conjecture, “She probably did that, because…” Or, “So you thought she should…”, and then you offer your child solutions to avoid this ever happening again. Exploring these situations with our children is surely helpful, but only after we’ve braved the silence and allowed the moment to breathe so they can express themselves completely.
Dismiss or diminish.
I believe one of the most invalidating words we use when our children are expressing a feeling is “just.” For example, we might respond to our child’s demonstration of discomfort with, “That’s just a puppy,” or “That baby was just saying hi when he came close to you”. I can understand the compulsion to melt away a child’s concerns by diminishing them, especially when they seem unreasonable. But shouldn’t we be taking our child’s side? If not, who will? “You didn’t like that,” is all we need to say. And then silence, so this feeling can simply exist and be processed.
The impulsive responses we offer our children in order to try to resolve their feelings demonstrate our own discomfort. Since we are very powerful people to our children, our inability to brave the silence can give them the impression that their feelings are unnatural or wrong, perhaps too big a problem for them to handle.
The truth is, feelings don’t always make sense. They just arise and pass through, and they have a natural cycle — a beginning, middle, and end. As our children get older, we want them to understand this intuitively so they are comfortable letting their feelings play out. Now is the time to allow them to experience each stage of their feelings completely, to make sense of and learn from them.
(And now I’ll shut up and hope there’s not too much silence.)
For more on this topic:
You Want Mommy to Come Back by Thomas Hobson, Teacher Tom
When Empathy Doesn’t Work and A Mental Health Mantra for Parents and Kids on this site, and my compilation: Elevating Child Care, A Guide to Respectful Parenting (now available in Spanish!)
(Photo by Randen Pederson on Flickr)